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Could Minneapolis avoid an election for two-year council terms in 2021? Maybe, but only by moving quickly

If new council wards could be drawn and approved before the deadline for filing for city offices in 2021, there would be no need for council elections for two-year-terms — a scenario that’s possible if not entirely feasible. 

Minneapolis City Council
To meet the Kahn Rule, Minneapolis City Council members may have to run in 2021 for two-year terms — and then again in 2023 for either a two-year or four-year term, depending on what the city decides.
MinnPost photo by Annabelle Marcovici

Facing an unusual and undesirable political scenario, Minneapolis City Council members are looking for any way to avoid having to run for two-year terms instead of the normal four-year terms in the 2021 election.

Only recently has the city begun to focus on the impacts of what is dubbed the Kahn Rule, after its author, former state Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, which aims to make sure city elections honor changes in ward populations soon after census-driven redistricting. 

To meet the rule, council members may have to run in 2021 for two-year terms — and then again in 2023 for either a two-year or four-year term, depending on what the city decides. Meanwhile, a mayoral election will be on the ballot in 2021 but would not be in 2023.

Such a scenario emerged after city officials concluded it would take until well past the 2021 elections to finish the city’s redistricting process for council wards. After the last census, for example, Minneapolis didn’t have new ward boundaries in place until the spring of 2012.

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But what if the city could speed up the redrawing of ward maps so that the city’s political calendar wouldn’t have to be radically altered? 

If new wards could be in place before the springtime deadline for filing for city offices, elections could be still be for four-year terms and remain coupled with mayoral elections. Importantly, there would be no need for a two-year-term election or any extra elections.

Such a solution was suggested by Joe Mansky, the recently retired manager of Ramsey County elections. After seeing a MinnPost article on the issue, Mansky wrote that he had helped draft the language in the Kahn bill, which also affected St. Paul after the law was passed in 2010. 

It went into effect for the 2011 city redistricting process, and I used its provisions to prepare and implement a new ward plan for the City of Saint Paul that spring,” Mansky wrote. “The new ward plan was approved by the Saint Paul Charter Commission in May 2011, went into effect in August, and was used to conduct the 2011 city council election.”

If Minneapolis followed his lead and got its new ward boundaries in place before  the 2021 candidate filing period begins, it could do the same, he said.

“The city will get block data from the 2020 census in late February or early March of 2021, leaving ample time for the charter commission to consider, adopt and implement a new ward redistricting plan for the 2021 city election,” Mansky wrote. “There is no legal or administrative rationale to delay this process beyond the 2021 election year.”

Kahn, when presented with the scenario outlined by Mansky, said she “completely agreed”: “Joe Mansky is very knowledgeable.”

Is it feasible?

The Mansky method is legally attainable. The bigger question is whether it’s feasible: State law sets some harsh deadlines for post-census redistricting for local governments. 

First, cities with wards can’t redraw lines until after the state Legislature (or the courts, if the Legislature can’t agree) redistricts the state. And the cities must have new boundaries approved at least 14 days before the start of the May filing period. State law also provides for ample opportunity for legal intervention by voters that can further delay implementation of new political maps.

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But the deadline for the Legislature to act isn’t until February — of 2022. And while the Legislature can act sooner, redistricting has long been subject to both political disagreements and court intervention. When then-Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed a legislatively adopted plan after the 2010 census, the state Supreme Court appointed a five-judge special panel to redraw the lines, which were finalized on Feb. 21, 2012.

But Mansky said such a timeline could change if the DFL swept the House and Senate in 2020. “Should the DFL party gain control of the state senate at the 2020 state general election and retain control of the house, it is virtual certainty the legislature will enact and the governor will sign a new legislative redistricting law by May 2021, which will set the local redistricting process in motion statewide immediately thereafter,” he wrote.

Barry Clegg, the chair of the Minneapolis Charter Commission, which is charged with redrawing ward boundaries after the census, said the issue will be discussed at the commission meeting Wednesday.

Yet Clegg has previously said having Minneapolis ward maps ready before candidate filing in 2021 would be difficult, technically and politically. “While it would be theoretically possible to redistrict in 2021, that would mean we would have to do it in a period of weeks, with requirements of multiple public meetings and hearings — so not practical, especially in a cycle like this one, where there has been some significant growth in certain wards which will necessitate some movement in ward lines,” Clegg wrote.

Council wants to avoid staggered elections

The council is currently considering asking the state Legislature to give the city more options to meet the requirement of using new wards in an election no later than 2023. It could seek authority to use a system similar to that used by the state senate of running for two-year terms after the census and then returning to four-year terms for the next two election cycles, for example.

City Council President Lisa Bender
Some on the council, including Council President Lisa Bender, wants to avoid a scenario where the council elections are decoupled from the mayoral election. That could happen if the council runs in 2021 for two-year terms, followed by a four-year-term election in 2023. She would like Mayor Jacob Frey to join the council in running for a two-year term in 2021 and 2023 and then all return to a four-year term at the 2025 election. Because the mayor is elected citywide, Frey will not be impacted by redistricting, and he has said he is not interested in joining council members in running for a two-year term.

The Mansky method has attracted some attention on the City Council, said Council Member Andrew Johnson, the chair of the city’s Intergovernmental Affairs Committee, which will soon consider the city’s legislative agenda for the 2020 session. 

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“That’s the preferred thing, if possible,” Johnson said. Having an extra election in 2023 is expensive, both for taxpayers and candidates, he said. 

He’d rather have the city spend some of the money getting redistricting done as quickly as possible in time for 2021. “If there is a way, I think there is a lot of interest in that,” he said. “But my understanding to date is that it’s not really possible.”